Esa Ruoho has been active releasing music since the end of the ‘90s, and he is our favourite electronic music artist hailing from Finland. With a history that sees his Lackluster alias as one of the hidden gems of the so-called ‘IDM’ world, his sonic explorations also took him to different horizons spanning a wide range of genres. Nowadays he is quite active with HLER, his ambient-drone duo with Heikki Lindgren. We saw him at the Kokeile Festival in Porvoo a few months ago, and we’ve managed to catch up with him for a wide ranging discussion that took in the electronic music scene in Finland, the present state of ambient music, his various works under both his own name and various aliases, and his software/ hardware development.
Cyclic Defrost: Hi Esa, please tell us where you are now and how’s everything over there?
I’m living in Helsinki, Finland – which has not changed, really. We’re working on a digital release for streaming purposes of our HLER jams.. Maybe get it mastered, all that. Just upgraded to a faster machine after some saving. Pushed some older releases up to streaming services. Playing a lot more gigs this year, thanks to the HLER collab and, I don’t know what else caused this to happen but also playing Lackluster gigs, as you know.
Cyclic Defrost: How would you describe the scene in Finland? Are you in touch with other artists over there? If you had to compare it to, say when you were starting, is it getting better?
Being a bit of a hermit, I don’t really hang out with many artists or visit gigs. I mostly just work a few jobs, spend time at home and sometimes play gigs either solo or with Heikki. I feel like I’m in touch with less people that make music, than in the 90s and 00s, it was different that time. Even then, I didn’t really partake in jam sessions with friends, although they suggested it multiple times – my head wasn’t in a place where I could really get into that. Therefore now that I jam with Heikki for HLER materials, it is very interesting. I feel like maybe it’d be useful to visit more people but can’t seem to find the time to do it. All I can really say that the scene might be slightly different, but how, this I simply can’t say. Maybe there’s more producers out there, and since hardware is cheap, it is easier to accumulate a lot of gear and start trading it around while looking for that one bit of gear that will change everything. You know, the cornerstone.
Cyclic Defrost: Great gig at Kokeile! Must say that after waiting to listen to your performance for more than 8 years, you really delivered, even if it was for only 30 minutes! How did you like the experience?
Thanks for coming to the Kokeile Festival to check out my gig! It was my debut gig in Porvoo. While I was initially shocked at the short runtime – as were you – sometimes playing a 30 minute set can be quite interesting too. I first heard of Kokeile Festival by accident, got in touch with them and asked if they might be interested in an ambient drone gig as Esa Ruoho maybe next year if they were overbooked this year. They instead wanted me to play as Lackluster, which kinda threw me off – I can’t say I make experimental electronic music as Lackluster at all (Kokeile is, after all, billed as an experimental music festival). In fact, I asked them what they’d like me to play and they told me to play whatever I liked – so no clues there either.
So I spent most of the afternoon and evening practicing and it turned out that I’d be playing stuff with more melodies and way more beats, which seemed to fit fine after Henry Vistbacka’s Ihmineläin performance – he was already moving the whole of the night towards the kind of territory that had rhythmic content.. Came with a friend, although a 50 minute drive does not really qualify as a roadtrip. The venue was really nice sounding, I take that, based on the photos, the visuals looked snappy and stylish and I was pleased with the night and the way the festival was conducted overall. I would play again, if they want me to, maybe record it this time.
Cyclic Defrost: I found the event as a fresh take, saw a lot of effort in there. Are these type of events common in Finland?
Well, yep, I would say so. I’ve played in Kokkola at the Kohina Ambient Music Festival, which was very similar – although that one had 2 days worth of performances and two rooms. All I can really say about whether these are common or not is that I mostly become aware of a festival like Kokeile after it has been held, so I would guess there are quite a few around. I guess the issue is really that there’s no specific place that would have info about all the different events, now, your readers can correct me if / when I’m wrong, but I feel like there’s no Ambient/Experimental Events Lists in Finland.
Cyclic Defrost: What are your best memories performing live?
I think there is no specific performance or anything, but when people applaud or express their appreciation during the gig or after the gig, that is probably the nicest memory. I get a bit sheepish though – don’t know how to take it. There have been times during various gigs where the medleys/mixtures I’m playing have worked so well that I’ve found them really enjoyable. I think overall, the time leading up to playing a gig (sitting around.. waiting..) and the minutes after starting playing are quite stressful but when I warm up and the set starts flowing and progressing, those are the best memories.
Cyclic Defrost: What was the hardest thing you had to overcome to dedicate yourself to music?
I got a lot of help at the start from numerous people, and that helped me realise it was doable, but this was from the compositional side. There has never really been a kind of huge obstacle to making music, no “you shouldn’t, so stop thinking about it” or anyone putting me down emotionally, no real disrespect. By the time I came across a person that was like “yeah, good grief this sucks” I had gotten to the point where it was obvious to me that they weren’t feeling very well and were just overall in a pretty destructive place. Constructive feedback is different, of course, there’s been a lot of that and I’ve internalised the creation of that so that anything “they” can tell me, I can state better and more clearly, but I don’t feel like that’s something to overcome.
Maybe nowadays the hardest thing to overcome would be to actually keep on making music, no matter if you’re signed to a label or not, and to try and keep away from the web and other timesinks. Another thing could be that the scene is quite different from what it was in 1999 when I released CDR#2, back then it was heard and listened to – now if you were to put anything out, it’d be completely lost in this huge ruckus that’s going on with releases, i.e., if I release something now, it does not get heard by as many people as it was back then, just due to the sheer volume of material being released every minute. So, maybe the hardest thing now is this mix of “But I’m so busy online also let’s watch 5 films” vs. “If I make something, even if I love it to bits, who is going to hear it? What does it matter? Has time passed me by?” to “How do I move this forwards so that I grow musically and am not comfortable with what I “know” how to do?” and “maybe the time has passed and it’s time for me to step away and let the new guys do what they do – they’re hungry, I’m not”. These kinds of things.
But yeah, originally, music affected me the most, and that sense of beginner-mind was huge for me in the 90s-00s and I really just felt like, I really like doing this, I like what this does to my mind and mental state, and this is what I want to do. I didn’t care then if it was “too simple” or “too frank”, and that innocence and sense of discovery is something I really miss. I would much rather be technically poor than be (somewhat) technically proficient and not able to get out of my own head / personality. So, I guess, it has always been a battle of getting rid of who I perceive myself to be, and how I perceive myself to act musically (forms, styles), and instead just looking at music with a clear mind and with no opinions and judgement, no pre-conceptions and notions. I used to believe I could cheat myself out of that by smoking – and it kinda worked – but that paled in comparison with the real beginner mind, and the diminishing returns were always diminishing in returns.
Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about your project with Heikki Lindgren. What’s the story behind that rare analog synth from Peru?
This has really proven to be extremely inspiring! Heikki had a rare Peruvian analog synth and it was pretty wonky and unstable, and we decided to try what it would sound like if I would just sample it and loop it via FX, and we’ve now been at it for half a year and have many hours of materials. Getting to play gigs as a duo is also interesting to me, something I’ve not done ever, really, and I really feel like maybe I wouldn’t be making music as much if it wasn’t for us both wanting to make and record and perform stuff. I feel energised and it is also interesting how much variation there is upon any given day, after all, there’s input from two persons coming in at any point in time, and that, and the overall levels and balance between the original Mochika XL and what I sample out of it and loop with various apps, is just really interesting for this kind of sense of discovery. I find this to be much more inspiring than trying to figure out where Lackluster could go next, I must admit. On the other hand, I don’t think Lackluster is dead or anything, just that I don’t know where to take it – and who with. Btw, here is a video on the Mochika, with English subtitles: https://youtube.com/watch?v=mWn37HUXs1I
Cyclic Defrost: From ScreamTracker3 more than 23 years ago until Ableton Live nowadays. If you had to choose 3 pieces of equipment/software that were essential in your development as an artist, which ones would they be and why?
For me, I think the main enablers have been ScreamTracker3, ImpulseTracker2 and Logic. Since ST3/IT2 can be squeezed together into just being called “the other tracker”, I guess I could maybe add AudioMulch into the list, too. Before I used ST3, I wasn’t really able to do a repetitive beat, because I didn’t really comprehend the rows and lines of FastTracker1/2 at all. This might appear really stupid – making a repetitive beat should be easy. But when I used ScreamTracker3 for the first time, I felt like I had arrived. I was finally comfortable, even from the first few minutes I used it, and the keyboard-focused workflow really spoke to me. Of course I had help along the way, studying songs by other people, but now I was actually able to sit down, focus and make something where I felt in control, instead of constantly wondering where I was and why. I know people that have grown up with ProTracker/FastTracker/Renoise must be shaking their heads in dismay, but that was my experience and I can’t go and claim that it wasn’t true for me personally. When ImpulseTracker2 hit the streets, the various improvements it had over ST3 really helped me do what I was wanting to do, and, in fact, all of the songs on Container were made with IT2 – so all I can say is that IT2 enabled me to do this one very specific “kind” of sound, and I was happy for a while.
AudioMulch as an app was really interesting – I was able to do stuff that had no timeline, one could say, no metronome clicking away. Stuff was just happening. I made my first “ambient” type things with AudioMulch, some of which are on that Spaces album I released under my own name, upon request from Clair Poulton of deFocus – she didn’t want my ambient stuff confusing people who liked “the Lackluster sound”. I guess she was right, I don’t know, but it led to this split between the two, which I guess allowed me to do two different things, maybe nowadays favouring the ambient drone side over the melodic beat-led side that seems to have been appreciated by some people. Logic brought me up to speed, really up to speed with VST plugins and softsynths and external MIDI hardware like synthesisers and drum machines, and I did get some help along the way that enabled me to become more comfortable with that, too. What Logic on the PC brought into the game was this kind of “hang on, it is composing itself” type thing, where I wasn’t stuck in a loop as much as I am with a tracker, and what the Logic environment allowed me to do was also very intriguing, as there was this back’n’forth between modifying notes and modifying samples on the go, which allowed me to create more complex beats (well, they were complex for me, others might disagree). Ableton Live obviously changed the way I played gigs, and after some help along the way I’ve been really quite happy with the way I can tweak Ableton Live and start with an empty session – start from scratch. It is scary every time. I have to warm up quite a bit to feel comfortable, or to get into the rhythm of things. But on the other hand, if I find something interesting, I can chase that for a while and then move somewhere else.
Well, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the “3 pieces of equipment/software that were essential and why”, but maybe this has managed to answer it sideways. So, trackers – for the detailed control, learning to sample anything (vinyl, radio, tape, synths, toysynths, TV, CD, microphone) – for just sudden inspiration and nice textures, and maybe later on some more complex apps (in different ways) to offset what I was able to draw out of trackers.
Cyclic Defrost: Have you ever faced a period of no inspiration? And if so, how do you do to get over that?
Constantly. Then I just don’t make anything for a while. Sometimes I lend away gear to other people, so when I get it back I’ve got the itch. Or then I just catalogue files or samples, or look through previous unfinished tracks and tweak them further.. Or just sample something new, turn on the radio and sample for an hour or two. Or read a book or watch a film or something. I also sometimes just configure something new, or switch apps, if I’m tired of a tracker, I’ll try another one, or switch to a sequencer, or just practice for gigs.
I also find that this whole concept of “yeah I’ll wait for inspiration” is kind of silly, what if you get the only inspiration you’ll ever have in your life, and your technique and setup is so rusty you’re not comfortable enough with it to do anything with the inspiration? I’ve gone through periods of trying to reclaim my time and make more music, or at least make a beat a day or something, sometimes two or three – and it really is a mixture of being rusty (which requires one to get comfortable with the setup in order to get the rhythm / flow back) and actually being bored (trying something new or revisiting old stuff can help). Maybe an equivalent description of this would be the route of “oh hold on, let me wait 5 years for inspiration, oh, now I have it, okay, my guitar is out of tune, let me tune it up — ohh, the guitar is tuned up, inspiration is gone, ok, I’ll wait another 5 years” — you sit down and start doing it and that’s it. You keep doing it until it’s good, and doesn’t matter how many times you need to restart, just keep going. I’ve found mostly that “no inspiration” is (at least in my life) just short for being rusty and not feeling like configuring. The rest is time management issues. It is easy to mistake “being lazy and not getting around to it” with “having no inspiration” but that’s just the easy way out.
Cyclic Defrost: In terms of sound, do you consider yourself a perfectionist? And, what do you think about the approach of expecting the unexpected in music production?
I am by no means a perfectionist, at all. I believe in happy mistakes, and accidentally discovering something. Especially during gigs or improv sessions, you don’t have time to perfect the mix, you just keep rolling and progressing until everyone walks away or you’ve got something decent going. I’m not gonna spend a month tweaking a hihat sound, ‘cos I wouldn’t know if it’s better a month after working on it rather than when the sound was sequenced that first time. I’ve spent a couple of weeks sometimes, tweaking a song that could’ve been left at a first draft and released, and I could’ve instead spent those weeks starting new tracks. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to know more about mixing, and especially bass and drum EQs, but if it comes to “having the perfect mix and 0 tracks finished”, I’d rather have 20 tracks that aren’t perfectly mixed but I really love. And sometimes mistakes really bring something authentic into songs – there’s been this thing that has happened for ages, where a person will start producing using only samples – they create wonderful collages, absolutely staggering, then they go “yeah, so, from now on I’ll not sample anymore, I’ll get session musicians and players and vocalists in, this is gonna be great!” – yet the results are less, because there’s no texture (meaning/content) / or time-based sounds (locked in a specific time, time-worn) that were in the original “oh, this I sampled from an obscure record from the 1950s, this beat I sampled from a tape from the 1970s” methods. This doesn’t mean that I don’t value the effort going into creating your own samples from scratch, but sometimes that authentic time-destroyed sound that sounds like trash, has more character than the pristine, clean, clear and perfectly EQ’d up stuff. And again we return back to the beginner mind, you’re discovering a collection of sounds as-is, and you use them as-is, because the tune is more important than the production. I’d rather take a sample with a ton of soul than a pristine sample that is dead inside.
Cyclic Defrost: Regarding ambient/experimental music, don’t you think that the reception to these kind of sounds got better recently?
Hmm, I really wouldn’t know. I’ll try and answer this in two ways. When I started experimenting with dub-techno and deep-house material while hanging around with people who were making electronica, they used to scoff going “so, yeah, a four-to-the-floor beat, eh? Can’t you tweak it up so it isn’t that repetitive? lol that stuff so easy”, which I disagreed with vehemently. Now (maybe this is just because of the way my ambient stuff sounds), a similar type of thinking scoffs at it going “so yeah, ambient drone music, really easy, also, sounds a bit poor, also, anyone could make it, also, this isn’t really even music”, which is just another take on the whole “this music that I don’t accept, isn’t good, because I have an opinion that says so” thing. On the other hand, what’s interesting is that ever since I started making more ambient drone, I started getting way more gigs for that, and Lackluster kinda had to step aside.
Now there’s a nice little balance, where out of 10 gigs, maybe 8 to 9 will be ambient drone (either as HLER or under my own name) and then a couple as Lackluster. Which I’m fine with! It only gets weird if I’m asked to play an ambient Lackluster set, but I’ve also found that the reception for that, and the expectations for it, are different compared to the full-on ambient drone sets under my own name. Maybe I’m either hanging around in the right circles that appreciate textures over melodies, or there’s been a shift and there is more of an appreciation for experimental / found sound / ambient music overall. And more stuff like that gets played in the libraries when libraries allow for performances, too, which is really cool. I used to go to libraries and listen to CDs there with headphones, now I get to go there and play music.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s the latest thing that blew your mind? And the latest great thing that you heard?
I’m gonna answer these with the same answer, because the latest thing I’ve come across has both blown my mind (technically) and also has been really interesting to listen to. A couple of friends started posting links to this one jazz-schooled saxophone player’s setups / devices he has built, and I had to check out everything he did after I managed to pick up my jaw from the floor.
His name is Lars Dietrich. He seems to know his way around the saxophone, but also builds devices that translate the notes he plays with it, via MaxMSP, into midi notes that he then pipes into devices he builds himself. Here are 6 links that he did. The first one I saw was this mutated bass-music where he’d play the saxophone, an anime vocal robot would sing back to him, and he’d have these beat-making machines that were of that “fast&loose” type drumming style, that lurchy type of bass music thing. I was also really impressed finding out that he had brief videos of a performance with a saxophone, a church organ and the anime/animated vox singer. I really felt like these kinds of combinations were what I would expect from bass music, if it were to be transported into this decade. Check them out! Apparently he has an album coming out, so I’ll have to check that out, too, when it becomes available.
https://www.instagram.com/p/BJiDakNjBFO Church Organ, Saxophone and Lucy-anime-vox-singer
https://www.instagram.com/p/BQAt_4yB8Q7 Saxophone + midicontroller prototype + MaxMSP
https://www.instagram.com/p/BQQLsftAzBo Call&response – Saxophone, Lucy-anime-vox-singer
https://www.instagram.com/p/BR8Xc2qhUrv Saxophone, Footpedal, Lucy
https://www.instagram.com/p/BSwT1mlBVzy Saxophone + Ableton Live
https://www.instagram.com/p/BhMSX2bngoC clapping + anime robotics etc
Cyclic Defrost: Plans for this year?
I just put out the soundtrack release for Hydroton – a model for Cold Fusion -documentary (produced by Ruby Carat of Cold Fusion Now! ( http://coldfusionnow.org ) – which is available on YouTube – the album itself is of course on my Bandcamp page. I’m continuing to collaborate with Ruby by (fairly quickly) editing together her Cold Fusion Now! -podcast series ( http://coldfusionnow.org/cfnpodcast/ ), for which I also created a kind of theme/jingle song. In addition to that, Heikki and I are working together by jamming together and recording more HLER material – with the aim to eventually get a release out on a larger label, and then tour our improvised drone sound around the world. I’ve reached out to Norwegian and Swedish organisers but so far no luck.
I was supposed to deliver a few mixes to a certain select few people, but have yet to do them – hopefully this year, too. In addition to that, I of course have some music that I’m either supposed to finish for a possible release, or new tunes to make. As one could probably surmise from looking at my gig list for the past few years, I’ve mostly been playing ambient drone gigs as Esa Ruoho or improvised ambient gigs with Heikki as HLER – so there has not been that much interest in Lackluster as far as I can tell. We’ll see if that changes, as interest towards my two projects tends to cause pivots in what I choose to do. In fact, there will apparently be another performance of the Suuri Koralliriutta / The Great Barrier Reef collaboration between Toisissa Tiloissa ( http://toisissatiloissa.net ) and me, which should occur in September. Our debut performance was at Kontula Electronic 2018 in April – and it was plenty interesting, I’ve never worked live with a performance group and volunteers before. Due to the feedback I got on a certain track I played as the ender during my ambient gig in Myyrmäki in May, I’m more and more interested in putting together a kind of lullaby EP type thing. I have some things for it, but will see how long it takes me to put it all together. Apart from that, I can’t think of any other plans that are on the table.
You can find out more here.